If it’s possible to write richly about a very bleak place, Jeremy Chambers has done it in this book about the Australian suburb, a place “not really known for anything: people lived here, but that was all”. Suburbia, Chambers’ second novel after the much-praised The Vintage and the Gleaning, adds another voice to a welcome wave of Australian fiction that re-evaluates family life at the end of the 20th century, a time just close enough to make readers feel rather uncomfortable without quite causing us to look away.
Early in the book, set in the 1980s, a parent tells a story about Americans in Vietnam who “used to smoke marijuana before they went out on patrol. Wandered around the jungle yapping their heads off.” In Chambers’ view, suburbia was really a place for returned servicemen to treat their trauma, and perhaps to make it worse. Meanwhile, today’s Australia waits quietly in the wings. A milk bar owner sells menthol cigarettes to a bunch of white kids and says, “I love this country ... But it is not a good place to live. A good place to work, certainly. But for living, I would go back to Cairo.” A kid says “Umm” and points to the lollies.
If there’s one sure way to push the reader’s discomfort, it’s to focus on the personal development of a teenage boy, in this case Roland, who was seven when his family moved to this suburb full of lemon trees and Hills Hoists, and is 14 when most of the story takes place – though girls he meets tell him he talks like he’s 30, as if any teenage boy would take this as a compliment.
Roland, of course, is in love with Cassie, the new girl next door, and he’s also enamoured of Darren, an older boy with hair that, in that ’80s way, manages to be both masculine and spectacular. Of course, there’s a triangle that’s not really a triangle; Roland spends some of the summer feeling uncomplicated things about Cassie and Darren, and then more of the summer walking into rooms where they’ve obviously just had sex.
The stakes seem low, but the suburb seethes with secrets, and they turn out to be rotten when revealed. And then we get the ultimate condemnation of the suburbs: it all goes smoothly back to normal, Hills Hoists and lemon trees, as if the country’s troubles are somewhere else. CR
Text, 272pp, $29.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 14, 2017 as "Jeremy Chambers, Suburbia". Subscribe here.